Apple M2 Ultra Mac Studio Review: It Shreds Through Photo and Video Edits

Apple pretty much always hypes the performance of its machines, but in recent years that hype has been justified. The M2 Ultra sounded like an impressive chip on paper, but does it actually do enough to earn its asking price in a market that has gotten very competitive?

In recent years, watching the computing space as it pertains to creative professionals has been really fun from a reviews perspective. Especially since Apple made the transition to its own in-house silicon, the back and forth I’ve witnessed between who sits at the top — PC or Mac — has resulted in some truly excellent creator computers.

Apple would make a super-impressive piece of hardware, then a combination of Intel and Nvidia would answer with even better performance. Back and forth we have gone and the winners have been photographers and filmmakers. But even if Apple were to lose on performance, it would win in size, noise, and energy consumption.

Mac Studio m2 ultra review

Apple’s M2 Ultra, whether that be in the Mac Studio or the new Mac Pro, is a continuation of this pattern. Once again, the high-end Macs are exceeding the performance of all devices we’ve tested prior to it and are doing it without so much as a whisper of noise.

Should I Buy the Mac Pro or Mac Studio?

Before we continue, I do want to make sure it is clear that the maxed-out M2 Ultra Mac Studio and the maxed-out Mac Pro are, effectively, the same computer. I covered this in a previous story but just in case you missed that, there is nothing — performance wise — that separates these two computers. That’s why it’s not possible to spend as much on a brand-new Mac Pro as it has been in previous years.

There was a time when the Mac Pro alone served as the example of the best that Apple could do, but that is no longer the case. The actual computing hardware in both machines is identical.

Mac Pro and Mac Studio are equal

The difference is the chassis, where the Mac Pro supports PCIe expansion and also the ability to upgrade the SSD storage. Since it doesn’t look like the Mac Pro will play nice with additional GPUs, it really is just a hardware design decision that was meant to work for a very small number of editors who work in big studio environments. The performance information below is shared between the two machines at their best configurations and the Mac Studio is not only cheaper, but it is also smaller.

A vast majority of those interested in a powerful Mac, even power users or professional photographers and videographers, should not get a Mac Pro.

What’s Changed from Last Gen?

Other than obviously the chipset that powers the machine, what has changed between the M1 Ultra Mac Studio and the M2 Ultra Mac Studio is minor, but important.

The Mac Studio’s form factor has stayed the same: from the outside, it won’t look any different. It’s 3.7 inches (9.5 centimeters) tall, 7.7 inches (19.7 centimeters) wide, and 7.7 inches (19.7 centimeters) deep. The weight differs slightly depending upon the configuration, but Apple specifications say it should range from around six pounds (under three kilograms) to around eight pounds (3.6 kilograms). My review unit, which is completely maxed out, weighs just a hair shy of eight pounds.

The major change between these two generations other than the performance is that the HDMI port has been upgraded to HDMI 2.1 (the original Mac Studio only featured HDMI 2.0). It supports 8K video, 4K at up to 120p, and up to 240Hz at lower resolutions. While it was possible to get this performance using Thunderbolt in the last generation, seeing top-spec HDMI support is a big plus. Overall, the Mac Studio with M2 Ultra can support six Pro Display XDRs.

Mac Studio M2 Ultra
That HDMI port might look the same, but trust me, it’s better.

Apple’s SSD performance has always been impressive, but the 8TB capacity option in the M2 Ultra Mac Studio is even more so than in previous years. While the read speed is about what we saw last year, the write speed is through-the-roof fast.

M2 Ultra Mac Studio

That’s really all that has changed, so if you read my Mac Studio review last year and liked what you saw from an input and output perspective (six Thunderbolt 4 ports, a UHS-II card reader, Ethernet, two USB-3.0, HDMI, and a headphone jack), you’ll like what’s available in this year’s version.

Performance

Because so little has changed on the outside, we can basically skip to the best part of computer reviews: performance. Over the last year, we changed some of our testing metrics to be more consistent and more inclusive of both photo and video editors. As a result, we no longer test Capture One but we do benchmark Premiere Pro. Below, you’ll see some performance numbers that are generated using the industry-standard Puget Bench for Photoshop and Premiere Pro as well as our own in-house Lightroom Classic benchmark that mimics actual photography workflows.

As I’ve mentioned, we’ve got this Mac Studio outfitted with the absolute maximum that Apple is able to provide. This review unit features an M2 Ultra — which has a 24-core CPU and a 76-core GPU — 192GB of RAM, and 8TB of SSD storage.

Photoshop

We use Puget Systems’ industry-standard PugetBench benchmark for our Photoshop test, but it’s not the most recent version. As we have in the past, we ran version 0.8 of this particular benchmark, because it was the last version to include a Photo Merge test, a feature we find particular value in given our focus on photography.

PugetBench assigns an Overall and four Category scores after timing a wide variety of tasks ranging from the basics like loading, saving, and resizing a large .psd, to GPU-accelerated filters like Smart Sharpen and Field Blur, to heavily RAM-dependent tasks like Photo Merge.

Mac studio m2 ultra review

Mac studio m2 ultra review

I decided to start with Photoshop here because it is the only test where we aren’t seeing major improvement — or improvement at all. In Photoshop, I think we’ve plateaued on what we can expect any computer to do when asked to do a single task. The M2 Ultra is basically performing at or around what previous generation Apple chips have done here and that is basically in line with high-end PC performance. Any differences are minor or within a margin of error.

Basically, when running software that relies heavily on the CPU and does not tax the GPU as hard — Photoshop does use the GPU with some tasks, but not all — performance flattens out. That isn’t to say that the M2 Ultra Mac Studio doesn’t perform well in Photoshop — it absolutely does. But photographers who work exclusively in Photoshop should feel free to save some money and pick a lower-end machine than Apple’s top-of-the-line since it doesn’t make a major difference.

Lightroom Classic

The entire Lightroom Classic application leverages GPU acceleration, which means I went into this benchmark with higher expectations. For our test, which has remained constant for a few years now, we import 110 61-megapixel Sony Alpha 7R IV and 150 100-megapixel PhaseOne XF RAW files into Lightroom while also generating 1:1 previews. We then apply a custom-made preset with heavy global edits and then export those same files as 100% JPEGs and 16-bit TIFFs. All three of these steps are timed to provide us with data for the chart, which is represented in minutes and seconds.

Mac studio m2 ultra review

Mac studio m2 ultra review

Mac studio m2 ultra review

These are exceptional performance numbers. Last year, I mentioned that we were getting very close to a reality where it would be faster to perform major Lightroom import and export tasks faster than it takes to run to the kitchen and get a glass of water. Now, I think we’re there.

The M2 Ultra absolutely shreds through our benchmarks. Apple’s high-end silicon continues to perform better in TIFF exports than JPEG exports like it did last year, but both are extremely swift. While the speed of imports of either type of photo file was good, the biggest gains were in exporting the huge Phase One files, and it is there that the M2 Ultra absolutely dominates.

Premiere Pro

In Premiere Pro, we head back to using Puget Systems’ benchmark. The company actually updated its Premiere Pro benchmark last month, which meant we had to go back and re-bench several of our comparison computers since none of the numbers — not even the Overall score — could be compared across versions of the benchmark.

The new benchmark doesn’t evaluate in-app playback performance, which is a bummer, but Puget Systems says it’s working on a way to do that more reliably. In the meantime, this benchmark looks at how well computers perform high-resolution (4K and 8K) exports in LongGOP and intraframe as well as provides a RAW video and GPU effects score.

We had a large library of results from previous computers that used the old benchmark, but since those numbers are not compatible with the new numbers, we had to re-bench a few other computers for context. We don’t have access to all the computers we had used the previous benchmark with, so you’ll have to make decisions for your purchase based on the hardware found in the M1 Ultra Mac Studio, the Intel NUC Extreme, and the MSI Titan GT77 12UHS. The full specifications list for each of those computers can be found in PetaPixel‘s previous reviews (linked to each).

Mac studio m2 ultra review

Mac studio m2 ultra review

I’ll cut to the chase: Apple’s new M2 Ultra wins in all but one category, and overall it’s not that close. Apple continues to improve its GPU performance and that much is very clear here since it not only bests its predecessor but also beats out the Intel NUC Extreme, which is the closest to a direct competitor of the Mac Studio line that you can get in a PC and it was also our best-performing computer we had tested prior to the M2 Ultra Mac Studio.

Performance Takeaways

As mentioned, if you work primarily in Adobe Photoshop, M2 Ultra isn’t worth it. There are plenty of options at the lower end of Apple’s line that will work just fine for you and have the benefit of costing a lot less. Going forward, I would be surprised if we see computers get higher scores in the Photoshop bench by any sizable margin since we’ve pretty much hit the limit of performance for what we are testing for.

That is not the case with Lightroom Classic and Premiere Pro, where the M2 Ultra Mac Studio did astoundingly well. In particular, in Lightroom Classic the M2 Ultra blew away the competition and was churning through tasks that just two years ago were taking computers 10 times as long to complete. It’s incredible to me how fast this computer handled the Lightroom Classic tasks, and is a testament to both the M2 Ultra’s capability and to Adobe’s optimization for Apple silicon.

In Premiere Pro, it’s a closer fight but the M2 Ultra still wins. Overall, its score is well above the competition and it only loses to the NUC Extreme in the RAW video score.

Editors who work in Apple’s Final Cut will be even happier. I have watched this computer chew through nine simultaneous 4K and 8K video streams and play them all back at their full resolutions, simultaneously. It then was able to export a two-and-a-half minute, 4K video that used these same streams in less than 30 seconds.

Still Quiet as a Mouse

If you’re a video editor in any capacity, this computer runs like an absolute dream. As mentioned, I had to re-benchmark a few computers with Puget Systems’ latest Premiere Pro bench and that meant working them pretty hard. During those benchmarks, the fans in both Intel NUC and the MSI Titan screamed, creating such a ruckus that it was clearly audible from my living room which is downstairs and around the corner from my testing bench area.

The M2 Ultra Mac Studio was inaudible while performing the same tasks while standing right next to it — tasks in which, I might add, it also scored better.

Mac studio m2 ultra review

We don’t test power draw, but it is an accepted fact that the Mac Studio uses far less energy than the other desktops it competes against and over 40 percent less than the Energy Star efficiency requirement.

The Mac Studio still certainly produces heat, but it’s negligible compared to a top-of-the-line PC. It’s also doing all this incredible computation in a chassis that’s remarkably small. The Intel NUC Extreme is probably the closest any PC can come to compacting down and it’s still about twice as big as the Mac Studio and far and away louder when performing intensive tasks.

When you look at the Mac Studio, you can be impressed with the performance because it’s pretty much at the top, but you should also consider it’s doing that in an astoundingly small package, pulling a comparatively small amount of power, and hardly making a sound while doing so.

A Content Creator’s Dream

For quite a while, the only reason to get a Mac over a PC was for the operating system, since a PC was going to run circles around it when it came down to performance. Just before the transition to Apple silicon, I feel like this was probably the case at its strongest point.

But now, with Apple’s entire computer line officially transitioned to its in-house silicon, that is a very different story. Apple computers are, at least for creative applications, often more powerful than the competition in a design that is untouchable with any PC design that wants to come close to a Mac’s level of power.

PCs are probably cheaper, though, and more well-rounded machines capable of work and play (gaming on a Mac is getting a lot better, but options are still pretty limited). The fully-loaded Mac Studio with an M2 Ultra — built out to mirror the one I tested in this review — is $8,800 (dropping to a 60-core GPU drops the price to $7,800). That doesn’t include any peripherals either: you’re still going to need to pick up a keyboard, mouse, and display.

Mac studio m2 ultra review

But you probably don’t need the highest-end Mac you can get, and many of you will probably be perfectly well served with an M2 Max, which is significantly less expensive — a Mac Studio with an M2 Max, 12-Core CPU and 30-Core GPU, 32GB of memory, and a 512GB SSD is just under $2,000). That is not to excuse the price, but the value for your dollar is, I hope, apparent.

The main downside of the Mac Studio line is that once you buy it, that’s it. You can’t upgrade these machines. Heck, it’s hard to even get in there and clean them since the screws that hold the little silver box together are hidden under the circle of black silicone that keeps it from moving around on your desk. I’m not a huge fan of that, but so far it hasn’t been a major issue with last year’s model that has been daily-driven since launch — I’ll continue to keep an eye on this over time. Additionally, the performance will be enough to last you years — the M1 Ultra Mac Studio from last year is still running like the day it came out of the box — but some people are, rightfully, not going to be down with this just on principle.

Are There Alternatives?

If you like Apple computers and aren’t doing a lot of video editing, I think the Mac mini is your best bet. It’s small, affordable, and powerful. We regularly recommend it as the best computer for photographers because of these factors.

If you are a video editor, you could either go with an M2 Max Mac Studio which will be strong for editing but well below the power of an M2 Ultra, or outfit a Mac Studio with less onboard storage, less RAM, or a combination of both those factors to try and bring the price down. You could, alternatively, build a PC that will be cheaper but results in a larger, louder, more power-hungry device. If you don’t want to start from scratch, the Intel NUC 13 Extreme is an excellent computer.

If you need PCIe expansion, the Mac Pro is a good choice, but I do think that most of you won’t need that and the Studio or mini lines are going to be better choices for a vast majority of those reading this review.

Should You Buy It?

Yes, if you need this kind of performance. Video editors in particular will love the Mac Studio and those who edit a lot of photos in Lightroom Classic are also going to be blown away by how much faster their workflows will become.

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